6 questions with...Jonathan Harris

PopTech’s series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.

Artist, computer scientist and Internet anthropologist, Jonathan Harris (PopTech 2007) explores the intersection between human emotion, technology, and storytelling. He's known for insightful and inventive projects including We Feel Fine and Universe among many others. Last week Harris released a striking new video about one of his most recent projects, Today, a follow-up to a year-long project in which he posted one photo online each day for a year. In describing that highly personal project, he says, “I wanted to find a way to be more in the moment, to be more in every day. To understand time more. To understand my own life more. To have more memories. Basically, to live more richly as a human life, not just as a work life.”  To learn more about his current mindset and approach, we checked in with Harris.

If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio, what would I have seen you doing yesterday?
Up until last week, I was living and working in an old church, built in 1903 by Norwegian missionaries, in a small Icelandic fishing village, way up north.  I've been there for most of the last year, hiding away from the world to finish up a big new project, which I'll be releasing later this spring. Today, I'm sitting at a friend's kitchen table in Brooklyn.  I'm not sure what the next step will be for me, geographically.  I'm just taking one day at a time, looking for signs, and waiting to see where they point.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
I see the human species waking up and realizing that what we actually are is a single planetary meta-organism, finally rendered coherent by the Internet.  If search engines and online encyclopedias are the brain of this organism, and social networks are its nervous system, then what will be its heart, and what will be its soul?  I try to build systems to help us bring those aspects more clearly into focus.

What do you wish you had known when you began working?
Data is extremely limited in what in can say about life.  There is a popular belief nowadays that roughly goes, "Give me enough data, and then I will understand." This is only true for certain kinds of superficial insights.  There are other deeper, more essential and ineffable insights, which have to do with the heart and soul of things, and you will never find these hiding in data.  They are to be found only through personal experience, solitude, and contemplation.  I was very cocky when I was young, and believed I could know anything there was to know about life simply through my computer, and writing clever programs.  Now I see that many things can only be learned from life itself, and that these are the things that really matter.

What was the pathway that brought you to this work?
I was an oil painter and keeper of elaborate sketchbooks until I was robbed with a gun to my head in Costa Rica in 2003, losing a sketchbook containing over 8 months of work, among other things.  At that point, I turned to the Web, and since then, all my work has always been part of the network.

Who or what has most influenced your life and work?
Frank Lloyd Wright, Bob Dylan, Werner Herzog.

What book is on your nightstand right now?
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? - short stories by Raymond Carver

Images: Jonathan Harris

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